Tom Cobau and children

Tom Cobau and some of his many new Haitian friends.

My best moment in Haiti was on the evening of Wednesday, January 20th. We had completed a day of our mission work and were waiting for dinner. We were sitting on the front porch of the Reverend’s house. There were two young girls sitting on the porch with us. We didn’t know who they were and they didn’t know who we were.   We were certainly an unusual sight in Petite Goave Haiti. A team of 10 missionaries from Michigan was surprising to these two girls who seemed to be about 4 and 5 years old.

We introduced ourselves, using our weak understanding of Creole. We found out the five year old’s name was Shawnasa and the four year old’s name was Ruth.

We can not converse in Creole and we had some time to kill before dinner. We took a soccer ball out to the drive way and started kicking it around. Dan Hart quickly joined us. We soon had another child join us and we kicked the ball for about ½ hour. We were running around, laughing, and having fun.

The sun went down and a beautiful Haitian moon came out. We continued to play soccer under the light of the driveway light and the moon. It was obvious that Ruth, the younger child was the better soccer player. The other, older girl Shawnasa, was not as quick of foot or as interested in soccer.

But Shawnasa was chatting with us as our team of Haitians and missionaries kicked the ball around and laughed and sang. Suddenly, Shawnasa started singing. We all encouraged her. We cheered as she sang a few more lines of a Haitian song in Creole. I walked over to her and danced with her for a moment as the team laughed and cheered at her dancing and singing.

Suddenly Shawnasa looked up and me and hugged me. She looked up in my eyes and said “Amis!” I don’t know creole, but I know Amis means friends in French. Creole is based on French and everyone knew that this meant that we were friends. Everyone knew that we were all friends.   This was my happiest moment in Haiti.

It may seem silly to travel thousands of miles and spent lots of money to go to Haiti to make friends with a 5 year old girl. It is not.

I learned later that Shawnasa doesn’t attend the school where we were working. She is a neighbor of the Dorcelys who stops by the Reverend’s house for clean drinking water because her family can’t afford it. The Dorcelys simply provide it. Shawnasa is very poor. She will likely grow up without electricity or an education. But she will always be my friend.

— Tom Cobau

 

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.  — 1 Corinthians 12

Shortly before we left Haiti, we had a last team meeting. As with most team meetings we started with a Bible reading. The scripture was the passage from 1 Corinthians about the gifts we each have, and as I listened, I contemplated how we would staff our next team.

Sunday-Group-143We had two pastors on this trip, but neither will be leading us again. Other key members of the team would probably move on, too. So one of our important tasks as we return is building a team for our next trip. How could we communicate the skills needed in Haiti? How could we inspire the members of the congregation to recognize the skills they had to help others? I started to answer those questions by compiling this list. As you may have read in other posts, construction skills and physical strength are not essential requirements — but many other gifts that you might have could be perfect.

  • A desire to serve others
  • Deep compassion for the poor
  • Deep compassion for children
  • Love and understanding of the sick
  • Communication skills
  • A love of language, familiarity with French
  • Medical skills
  • Friendliness, outgoing
  • An eagerness for new experiences
  • An eagerness to grow personally and spiritually
  • Organizational skills
  • Enthusiasm
  • An ability to connect with young people
  • A willingness to assist at a construction site
  • Leadership skills

If you have any of these skills, please consider helping our mission in the future.

— Tom Cobau

 

When we go to Haiti we offer ourselves as the hands and feet of god. We are dedicated to showing unconditional love, without preconditions or judgment. The act of being there, being in the presence of those who are being helped is the most important thing. Donating money is great. Donating our time, our emotions, our engagement, is the best way to show the love of Jesus Christ.

When we are in Haiti, we pray together. We sing songs of worship to God everyday. We attend a Methodist church service. We provide money for the poor. But we don’t try to change the people. We only try to help and love. That is our mission.

We first went to Haiti in 2014. During this trip we started working to build new classrooms in the back of the school. We did not know how many classrooms we were building. A previous missionary team from another congregation in Michigan had laid a large foundation. We gave them money and worked with workers we hired locally to create a floor and start raising the walls for new classrooms. When we left the walls were about 3 feet high on two classrooms.

We were unsure what would happen when we left. Haiti has a weak banking system, and there are many incomplete buildings throughout the country. We felt we had left a job unfinished.

When we returned in 2016, the walls and roofs of four new classrooms were complete. The people in the Methodist Church in Haiti had been good stewards of our donations. Other teams from Michigan had contributed time and money.   They were teaching students in our classrooms.

I was not the only member of our team who was speechless with joy. The happiness of seeing our good works continued choked me up with tears. Praise God.

The enrollment at the school has increased from 600 to 700 in two years. I don’t know if this is entirely because of our efforts, but it certainly didn’t hurt to have 2 new classrooms.

When we work in Haiti we are helpers. We are not the skilled trades. We carry the rocks for the workers. We sift the rocks for the workers. We carry the cement and mortar for the workers. We serve them. We pay them. We pray for them. We laugh and joke with them. They love the dignity of the jobs we provide them. We pay them $20 per day. The minimum wage in Haiti is $5 per day. The workers consider these jobs the best jobs available. We provide them food and water while they work. All the workers love the dignity provided by these jobs. They love the feeling of accomplishment we give them by letting them exercise the gifts given to them by God. One worker, David, said he liked working with us so much he would bring us a goat as a gift the next time we visited.

Photo of Valenzia and her brotherWe paid our interpreter, Valanzia de Fontus, $50 a day. This will help her as she plans to go to study at a Community College in New York later this year. But the dignity of having a job was the best blessing. At the time of our visit, there was another mission team in Petit Guave. They were employing 14 interpreters at the eye clinic. There were simply no interpreters left for us. We were lucky that Rev. Dorcely found Valanzia for us. She is a recent graduate of The College de Harry Brakeman, the school where we were working. I don’t know if she had any previous experience interpreting, but we certainly gave her another line for her resume. We gave her the dignity of a highly paid professional job, even if it was only for one week.

The Rev. Dorcely said we create 35 jobs when we are in the country on a mission. We hire drivers. We drink water. We eat food. They hire people to complete our laundry. We purchase souvenirs to support local artists. We support the economy. We provide the dignity of a fair wage for a fair service.

That’s why we go to Haiti. That’s why we went to Haiti. That’s why, with God’s assistance, if he is willing, we will go again.

— Tom Cobau

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows the track record of GPUMC mission trips, but we raised a good deal more than we needed for this trip to meet the budget for materials and local labor. Following our usual practice, we kept that in reserve, so we could see for ourselves how it might be used. 

When Thursday night arrived we agreed we wanted to contribute $1,000 to keep the plaster team employed and to supply them with cement for a few more days. Our plan was to present the donation as we left the guest house Friday morning, but Dan noticed Rev. Dorcely and Maude eating dinner, though it was already past 9:00. He suggested we go ahead and present it then to save time in the morning. 

As you might expect, our hosts were very grateful for the additional gift, and said the crew would especially appreciate the additional bags of cement because supplies were running low. 
That was gratifying to hear, but it really hit home the next morning. When we stopped at the school to take part in the school’s daily ceremony at 8:00 a.m. we looked up the hill at the construction site. Simon was moving bags of cement that had already been purchased and delivered — less than 11 hours after we had provided the funds for it.

Say what you will about the uncertainties of working at the erratic pace of “Caribbean time,” that was an overnight delivery that rivals Amazon.com. And it guaranteed there would be no lost time or money waiting for supplies. 

This is not just a testament to the efficiency of our Haitian partners, it’s also a thank you to every person who contributed in any way to make it possible. Amen. 

I only met them on a work site. We barely spoke, except to shout each other’s names. I know nothing about their lives. All I really know is that they work hard, laugh heartily, and enjoy having their pictures taken. So, I took their pictures. I aimed my iPhone camera at them, snapped an image, then let them see the result. If they liked the shot, I kept it. If not, I tried again. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we were having a dialogue of sorts through my iPhone — just not in the usual way. In their photos they told jokes, bragged about their skills, or just looked me in the eye, and with unspoken dignity, told me who they were.

I’m going to miss those guys. But I’m glad I saved our conversations. Here are a few of them.

  
The brain trust. Robinson, a crew chief. Israel, the engineer. Jean Robert, overall construction supervisor.

  
Martin the “Mudslinger.” Have trowel, will travel.

  
Jounel and David. The hip hop team.

  
Serge. The Sage.

God bless you all, and thanks for letting me hang out on the scaffold with you. 

Can you name all 12 disciples? I’m guessing you likely cannot. I’m no biblical scholar, but this mission trip got me thinking how only a few of the disciples really had “speaking parts.” The rest of them were there, but primarily as observers who would share Christ’s message with others after he was no longer physically present. 

This thought came to mind after we spent most of the day Wednesday at the construction site doing little work besides some scraping and sweeping up waste and sifting sand for mortar we would never see mixed. Luckily our crew was small, and we had bursts of students around who charmed us as we took selfies with them, played soccer, and encouraged a few to practice their English. This was particularly hard for me, as I had done some of the plastering and finishing on Tuesday and felt ready to contribute more on Wednesday. Instead, the overall construction supervisor, Jean Robert made it very clear that he wanted his A team of local workers handling all the tools except a leftover trowel to scrape the deck and a broom to sweep up afterward. 

      
In Corinthians, Paul writes that we all have different gifts to serve Christ, but here we were not able to use them. If we are in Haiti to be the hands and feet of Christ, He seemed just standing around with His hands in His pockets. 

The truth is that this is a very different kind of mission than cleaning up a neighborhood in distress or a city after a hurricane. The goal is not short-term relief, but long term economic sustainability. Our project is a multiple win in that it has built classrooms for students and provided employment for highly skilled construction workers. The dollars the congregation raised and we brought down here will recycle through the economy several times. They have become lunches for students and pay for the cooks. The meals we eat at Maude Dorcely’s guesthouse include goat meat, chicken, and breadfruit grown and purchased locally. Have we mentioned the coffee? It is an exceptionally smooth, dark brew, and 100% Haitian. 

The humbling recognition for me is that what I can do with a trowel and mortar is not the point. Like those disciples we can’t name, our role in the main activity is less as actors and more as witnesses. We have seen the impact of GPUMC outreach in concrete terms, we have felt the power of Christ as we have seen skilled hands at work, and we’ve overcome language, distance, culture and means to know several dozen Haitians as individual people. As neighbors.

As we did those things we collected a remarkable set of experiences, images, and video. Limited access to the Internet has held us at bay. If you know any of us you are bound to see much more than the few photos I have posted here. And we have great stories to tell. We weren’t so much the hands and feet of Christ this time, but we’ve got plenty to offer his Twitter feed!

It seems that so many of our group reflection conversations focus on our joy in connecting with others. Many times these encounters are sweet, but brief. They leave you glad for the moment and then hoping that the next will bring more. More info about a workers family, more joy from hearing cute kids practice their basic English, and more understanding of the instructions from our experts. 

A day in the clinic brings a new challenge. When you are a receptionist in a Hatian health clinic with no knowledge of Creole, it makes organizing the masses more difficult. When all you can ask is for their name, it makes it hard to find moments of connection. You linger on the words you know, and hope for a knowing glance. You read body language and the din of crowd, measuring their contentment. It becomes easy to be bogged down in the doubt of the moment…wondering if their will be a moment…to bring any peace or support to the people pushing their way in the door to escape the heat of the mid-day sun.

Yet in the moment when their name is finally called and they go into the tunnel of light, bringing illumination to their ailment and relief from some of their pain, you see the universal sign. Gratitude has no single language. Love is shared through actions of care. At the end of the day the words I can’t express don’t matter, because the purpose remains the same. I can’t say it, but I am so glad we can be here to help. I can’t understand you, but I know you are thankful. Though I remain disappointed that I can’t say more, when I can’t say anything to you, I can do good in all the ways I can, and in all the places I can, with all the people I can.

 Action is my voice today.

D.H.

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